If you pushed me to describe my style of cooking, or the food I most like to eat, I would, I think, after considering “nose to tail”, “vaguely Italianate” and “messing about”, settle with some hesitation on a long sentence involving the words “ingredient-led”, the hesitation being because the latter is such a popular, buzzy phrase that my gut assumption is that it is probably meaningless, or at least wildly overused; I think, though, that my gut is, on this occasion, wrong. All food is ingredient-led, my inner grumpy old man declares – it is, after all, made of the bloody things – and this is sort of true; you are always, at least, at their mercy. The implied dichotomy, I suppose, is between food that is ingredient-led and food that is technique-led, which could be rephrased as a debate between Italian food and French food, or at least the way those two cuisines are popularly understood.
The pinnacle of classical French cuisine is, of course, the sauce, without which no piece of protein can be considered a proper dish; the saucier is the master craftsperson of the brigade, and the so-called mother sauces, which certain food publications still seem to think we should know all about, are the Ten or rather Five Commandments of this dying religion. True to form, the defining features of these sauces are largely the techniques used, in each one, to thicken a selection of basic ingredients – the kind of ingredients that don’t get to lead. You’d get them all for free in the cupboard on Ready Steady Cook, with the possible exception of tomatoes, the sauce of which is at any rate a late and somewhat out-of-place addition to the canon. The technique most often used is the roux, one which I associate much more with Delia Smith and macaroni cheese, lasagne, gravies cooked up in the roasting tin than with French cuisine, partly because it has been superseded, as a thickening method, by various other techniques since the days of Escoffier; then it was everywhere. Imagine making a roux for a tomato sauce – in fact, that’s a good way to contrast these two imaginary styles of cuisine. The French cook takes fruit of any stripe, peels and purees them and thickens with a roux, seasoning to cover any indifference of flavour; your hearty Italian, on the other hand, simply cooks the best tomatoes she can find, reducing them to a delicious sauce.
It has often struck me, in fact, that culinary ages could be defined by their sauce-thickening techniques, from the breadcrumbs and crushed nuts of the Middle Ages through the various experiments with flours and fats which coalesced into the roux and into beurre manie, through the uses of egg yolk in combination with various substances and up to the late 20th century obsession with reduction, concentrating flavour into sticky near-solids which, often enough, make everything taste the same. Molecular gastronomy, I suppose, gave us not thickeners but lighteners; the emulsion, often now declared as such on otherwise sparse menus, remains extremely popular, having received a boost from the Spanishisms of original gastropub the Eagle and that institution’s alumnodes at Moro; aioli has become the default cold emulsion to the point where a certain chip shop of my acquaintance offers a so-called ‘garlic aioli’. So, as they say, it goes. Alongside these mayonnaises, which might contain wild garlic, Jack-by-the-hedge, fermented seaweed, fermented squid ink or fermented chilli (to take a short sample from our own menus) sits a newly-respectable style of sauce, that made of actual ingredients you would want, separately, to eat.
Broadly speaking, these can be split into yoghurt sauces and green sauces, the latter based not on the French sauce verte (another kind of mayonnaise) but on the Italian salsa verde, and both stand or fall on the quality of their ingredients. If your sauce consists of either harissa or tahini stirred into yoghurt, or of vast piles of herbs simply seasoned, then those few things had better be good. I once put a dish on the menu solely because the parsley we had was so good it deserved to be front and centre, a pungent hit of chlorophyll; that, I suppose, is ingredient-led cooking – it led me by th’ nose. Good thick Greek yoghurt is good enough to eat with just a little salt and pepper, with that dairy trick of a rich, sour blandness, so far from the thin, grainy, homogenised ‘natural’ stuff as to be a completely different product. Once you have it, there is very little that needs doing to it, and although such things are not short on technique – you will soon get bored of making salsa verde if you lack in knife skills – the technique and thus the recipe and indeed the final dish proceed with at least the natural logic of dreams directly from some quality inherent in the ingredient itself, or so, at any rate, you tell yourself while elbow-deep in mackerel viscera and wondering what the hell you are doing.